Some supporters of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele are privately urging him to consider a graceful exit strategy as RNC members prepare for Friday's showdown vote on who will lead the party for the next two years.
Mr. Steele, who has vowed to fight to the bitter end in the fierce five-way contest, has some 28 votes publicly committed to him among the 168-member RNC — compared with the 41 votes claimed by Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, the presumed front-runner.
The two men are locked in a battle with three other Republicans for the right to head the GOP's top fundraising and candidate-assistance body through the next year's presidential election. The RNC will play a key role in the campaign as the party organ legally permitted to raise money for get-out-the-vote drives at the state level.
It is widely believed among RNC members that Mr. Steele actually has as many as 20 more supporters on the committee who will at least give him their first-ballot votes — bringing his total to about 50, still some 35 votes short of the 85 needed to win.
But incumbents tend to fare poorly if they don't win right out of the chute.
Kentucky RNC member Mike Duncan, for example, led Mr. Steele 52-46 on the first ballot in Mr. Duncan's bid to hold onto his RNC chairmanship in January 2009. But he dropped to a 48-48 tie with Mr. Steele on the second ballot and trailed him by 44-51 on the third ballot. Mr. Duncan then dropped out of the five-way race, which Mr. Steele won on the sixth ballot.
With Mr. Steele facing public opposition from some of the party's top figures, some Steele supporters are privately urging him to get out after amassing a face-saving vote total in the first round.
This strategy would entail the Steele campaign team recruiting the votes of enough uncommitted RNC members to at least match Mr. Duncan's level of 56 votes on the first ballot.
The quid pro quo would be a private Steele pledge to drop out after the first ballot, exiting with dignity rather than staying the course, only to watch his support erode. The prospect of ebbing support would also deprive Mr. Steele of the ability to be a kingmaker by throwing a big chunk of his voters to a favored rival at an opportune time later in the voting.
Most committee members think Mr. Steele's hard-core support will migrate primarily to Michigan RNC member Saul Anuzis, favored by most conservatives on the committee. But Steele campaign manager Holly Hughes, a Michigan RNC member, opposes any deal with Mr. Anuzis, her longtime political enemy in Michigan.
Mr. Anuzis was among the losing rivals of Mr. Steele in 2009, then joined his transition team and went to work for Mr. Steele's RNC to refine its "new media" efforts.
But Mr. Anuzis' candidacy has been hindered because he does not have the support of key party "elders."
If Mr. Anuzis is to prevail, he will need to pick up almost all of Mr. Steele's votes on a subsequent ballot and some of the votes belonging to former Bush administration official Maria Cino and former Missouri GOP Chairman Ann Wagner.
Miss Cino has the highest-profile Republicans publicly backing her, from new House Speaker John A. Boehner to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Also in her corner are former Bush White House Political Director Matt Schlapp, who maintains an association with behind-the-scenes billionaire conservative powerhouses Charles and David Koch.
Mrs. Wagner, who has a close association with former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove, has a glittering resume — former RNC co-chairman, ambassador to Luxembourg and campaign manager for Roy Blunt Jr.'s successful Senate bid in Missouri last year.
Mr. Priebus, who claims some credit for the GOP's November sweep of contests in Wisconsin, has the behind-the-scenes backing of another GOP powerhouse, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a respected former RNC chairman himself.
Among Mr. Steele's challengers, only Mr. Priebus has attracted a big bloc of votes - at least among those who have publicly stated a preference.
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